MW Cook

An illiterate scribe

Category: musings

Saint Matthew’s Angel

I found a great painting at a thrift store the other day. An older-looking man is giving rapt attention to an angel, who tells a story and plays with their fingers. You can picture the child-like voice saying, “And then… and then…” It’s called Saint Matthew, and the Angel, by Guido Reni.

 

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There are other paintings of Matthew with his muse. This one’s by Caravaggio. He has the angel sensually guiding Matt’s hand to write something that, judging by his raised brow and tight grip on the book, blows his freaking mind.

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Another by Caravaggio has Matt presumably driven to the writing desk in the middle of the night. He looks more than a little freaked out, balancing on the stool and trying to write whatever the angel is counting off.

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Rembrandt did one, too. His Matthew is solemn, and his hand hovers under his chin as if he completed a beard stroke. The angel whispers from behind now. There’s less urgency than in the others, but more depth.

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I don’t know much about the inner workings of creativity, but I’ve always loved the idea of a supernatural muse, some capricious but lovely whisperer that helps me write my things.

Who tells a simple child-like story that can pull the cynicism out of an old man’s eyes.

Who tells a tender truth easily pointed out that paralyzes us with wonder even as we try to write it.

Who pulls us from bed sometimes with something that will be lost if not recorded now, at this moment, in this spirit.

And who sometimes quietly, from behind, speaks with a depth that gives great pause.

 

Happy Birthday Deva

It’s Dev’s birthday today. He’s four and I don’t have any pictures of him. I mean, Ruth posted some shots at Easter, but he was only three at Easter. I need some four-year-old pictures, Ruth. Get on it.

Meanwhile, here’s some nice scenic shots.

Be back in a jiffy.

Letting Conditions Go

I’m reading a book called The Poisonwood Bible about a missionary who takes his wife and daughters to the Congo in the late 50s. It gets so familiar that it jars me. I like to think that my missionary philosophy was a direct response to his. He wanted to show Africa the power of American Evangelicalism. I wanted to see some kind of Sindhi Evangelicalism take root. We called it Incarnational Ministry, and Paul’s commitment to “become all things to all people” was my modus operandi.

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It made me a gentler missionary than Nathan Price, I suppose. And it allowed me to see some beauty in Pakistan and her cultures. But I was still a fundamentalist, so I couldn’t see the value of any faith here, except insofar as it accorded with the core of my own.

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So despite my desi dress and family and lifestyle, I was still set apart–in Sindh but not of it. I suppose I took it as a badge of honour at the time. But my constant dissatisfaction with the way my neighbours worshipped and viewed the world built a wall around me, and they could sense it.

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I’ve come to embrace a new mantra since then, borrowed from a Christian ska band: Freedom means love without condition. I still can’t say that I am of Sindh, but I can embrace my family and friends here with a kind of abandon I wasn’t able to before. I’m thankful for that much.

Changing Sindh

Construction is real in Sindh. Many of the roads have been completely re-done. Here in Sanghar the main road used to be a bumpy mess of rocks and water that would never completely dry up. Now it’s as smooth as anything you’d drive on in Canada.

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Once you get out of the city it’s a different story. Mirpur Khas is fifty-seven kilometres away, but it took us two and a half hours to get there. The roads were a mess, gouged out by fervent construction.

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Rattanabad has changed, too. I don’t even recognize the place. But I recognize the people, though they’ve all changed, too.

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To say that everything changes may be banal, because what else would everything do? But the banal things might be the most real, after all.

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Picnic

We went for a picnic in Noni’s village. I haven’t seen them for eight years. The children all grew up. The adults haven’t changed much. I was showered with hugs and wet kisses. I didn’t realized how much I’d missed them.

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Ruth’s Maasi–mother’s sister

It’s not the same village they were in when I lived here. Apparently there was a quarrel with the landlord and they had to move.

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Ruth’s Maaser–mother’s sister’s brother

We found Ambo in the fields, planting cotton with his wife and kids. We crossed through on raised paths and sat in a little copse of trees. There were little green mangos already growing on one. We peeled some, and ate them with salt.

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Ambo tells me cotton is one of the best things to plant, because it grows all year round. He asked if we planted cotton in Canada. I said I was pretty sure we don’t. A few more relatives took a break from fieldwork to join us.

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I didn’t eat much, but I laughed a lot. I wondered why I hadn’t had a picnic in the field back when I lived here. Then someone started smoking hash, and I remembered that missionaries don’t often get invited where there’s hash in the air.

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I wonder what it would be like to live here now that I no longer believe I’m on God’s great mission to ‘fix’ everything.

It’s been one week since I left my home.

Took a plane and went to Pakistan alone. My wife and kids must be missing me, and I still haven’t blogged at all about my journey.

Don’t blame me, it’s been a whirlwind.

I took a day in Karachi to rest and draw up energy. Considering how I feel now, it was a good choice. IMG_0081.JPG

Saddar is the only part of Karachi I know well, so I picked a hotel there. But it’s changed. What used to be an eternal excavation site has grown up into a mall. There’s a cinema and a Dunkin’ Donuts and everything–donut was a bit stale, but the coffee was great. I would have seen a movie but the one I wanted to watch started at 10:30 and I wasn’t looking forward to walking back to my hotel after midnight in Saddar.

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No Dunkin’ Donuts in Sanghar, of course. That’s where I’ll be spending most of my time, hanging with my in-laws. I haven’t been taking the best pictures because it’s been busy enough just sitting and eating and smiling with everyone.

Genuine Draft

Sixty-five drafts are in my queue. They’re diverse. Not really posts, but post-like ideas. Everyone once in a while I’ll browse them, try to turn one into something worth showing. Usually I end up adding another draft to the pile. There were sixty-two in queue yesterday.

One is about a flashing ambulance and the two paramedics I saw walk calmly out. It sets up some cool images, but doesn’t land anywhere. Another starts into neat ideas on incarnational ministry, then fails to crystallize. There’s a list I started: Top Ten Signs you Grew up Brethren; I only have three items. And a Happy First Birthday post for my son who’ll be four next month. I bet there’s twenty thousand words of drafts here.

 

Oh jeez, look at that. Most of these are from when I put two spaces after a period. No wonder I can’t do anything with them.

An Unmarked Bible

After I lost faith, someone mailed a Bible to me. It was my own Bible, misplaced years ago and given up for lost. It was good to hold it and let it open to worn, weathered pages. Some sections are positively brown from exposure.20170308_122719

These days, my projects have sent me looking into the past, at faith and fundamentalism and worship. My Bible is open on my desk, and I often run my eyes over familiar passages with great tenderness. The other day I found a verse that had been highlighted. I know I didn’t do it–when I bought this Bible I had decided to never mark it. It was lost for years, so there’s no way to guess who marked it, or why, or what the verse means to them:

For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. Ecclesiastes 1:18

Having never had much wisdom or knowledge, I can’t say whether this is true or not. But I do like Ecclesiastes, and one of the positive things about being faithless is that I can take these words whichever way I can muster, or just leave them altogether. Or flip over a few pages to other words that say other things.

Go, eat your bread in joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.

Enjoy life with the ones you love, all the days of your vain life, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil. Whatever your hand finds to do with your might, do it. For there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in the grave, to which you are going. Ecclesiastes 9:7-10

Time Travel and the Grandfather Paradox

You can totally go back and kill your grandfather. The universe won’t stop you; it doesn’t care if things don’t make sense. Bang, he’s dead. You’ll never be born.

So when you travel forward to the time you came from, you’re out of place. It’s not that you were never born–of course you were born; you’d remember it if your brain had been wired for it back then–but you were never born here. You arrive at a world in which you’ve never existed. You are utterly alone, with no birth, friends or connection to the world. No one exists who can look at you and say, “Oh hi, I know you.”

So don’t go back and kill your grandfather. You wouldn’t like it.

Though it seems a great premise for a sci-fi about assassins.

Asha Cook on Epistemic Boundedness

Asha came in while I was working. I took a break to ask about her day, and what she was working on. A comic about a vampire named Lucas. A book about a superhero named Smirk.

“Good stuff,” I said. Then she asked what I was working on.

“Oh, you know, just trying to figure out if humans are epistemically bounded.”

“What’s that?”

I took a breath. I was tempted to wave it off. After all, how could a seven-year-old engage with this? Then I thought, hell, give it a shot.

“Well, it’s the question of whether or not there are some ideas that we just can’t have because of how our brains are.”

Her brow furrowed as her mind lingered over my words. Then her eyes slowly widened. Her mouth dropped open a little.

“Wow,” she whispered through a smile. “That’s … that’s hard. And cool!

I grinned at my little philosopher. “It sure is.”